Episode 10: Jennifer Henel of Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art

Jennifer smiling for a headshot
Jennifer Henel is Digital Humanities Developer at Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art

My guest today is Jennifer Henel, Digital Humanities Developer at Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art.

When we talk about museum website content at Cuberis, we break it down into four types. We call one of those types “Essential Content.” This refers to the day to day work, mostly scholarly in nature, that occurs at your museum, and would even if you didn’t have a website.

Thanks to recent innovations and initiatives, more and more institutions are finding innovative ways of repurposing Essential Work as web content. Jennifer has been helping curators and historians publish their work online for years, and joined me to talk about some of the unique challenges of digitizing scholarly works. She also has some great ideas and insights for others who are looking to do something similar for their own institutions.


NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On: The Cuberis podcast. I’m Nick Faber.

If you’ve ever worked on a website redesign project, you know that it takes a lot of content to fill an entire website. But for a moment, imagine that your museum didn’t have a website at all. Think of how much content your museum would still to produce — Catalogs, scholarly research, educational resources, labels — all of the work that is essential to your museum’s mission and purpose. But your museum does have a website, and that work can now impact people who can’t make it to your physical location.

When we talk about museum websites at Cuberis, we refer to that type of content as Essential Work. Thanks to recent innovations in digital technology, more and more cultural institutions are making their Essential Work available online, making it accessible to more historians and scholars, and taking advantage of the Internet’s intrinsic properties to make it easier to read and understand.

My guest today is Jennifer Henel. She is working with Research Conservator Melanie Gifford of the National Gallery of Art to produce a new publication for the all-digital Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. I invited her to join me to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of publishing scholarly work online, what peer review looks like for digital publications, and what sort of insights she has for museums looking to make more Essential Work accessible to more people.

Jennifer joined me over Skype from the National Gallery of Art. Before we dove into the technical aspects of her work, I wanted to know more about the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Arts.

JENNIFER: Sure. It is the scholarly production of articles, etc, relating to Netherlandish art, Flemish art, Northern Baroque paintings, by and large, Dutch Art, that kind of spans the 1400s – I’m making large generalizations here — through, I’d say the early 1700s, depending on the subject matter. And they are deep scholarly dives, often, into a particular painting or paintings, that sort of thing.

It is a community of these various historians that are spread out throughout the world, and they can all contribute. And they aim for quarterly publication, though it just depends on what is coming up when they produce certain publications.

So that is what the journal does.

NICK: So you just started working with them — or recently started working with them — as a digital humanities developer. What is your role there, and what does that title mean?

JENNIFER: So I am working on a specific new publication that is part of the journal offerings. It’s going to be slated for next year. We’re aiming, I believe, for late June to push this out. And what I’ll be doing is, I’m working with a scholar, Melanie Gifford, on her research on the Sir Peter Paul Rubens painting The Fall of Phaeton, which is at the National Gallery. Melanie is a scientific conservator here at the National Gallery, and she is interested, not only in doing an article, but allowing for the narrative to take the reader through an exploration of the painting on a very technical level, but also to allow space for users to play around and see the different layers.

So we envision having not only the article, where you can go in a very linear fashion, but also using IIIF is our goal to allow a user to get really deep into a painting, to layer different images such as technical imagery, such as infrared reflectography and x-radiographs to reveal certain things about how the painting has changed, and also to draw comparisons with other paintings that are not in the gallery’s holdings.

So it is a very specific project, but the idea is there will be an expansion of how the Journal works in order to allow for future articles to have some of this functionality.

NICK: How does that work as far as rights or, you know, what do you call it, provenance, or you know…? How did that scholar decide, ‘I’m going to do this piece,’ and what is the National Gallery’s role in that, as far as saying — do they have to give permission since the Journal doesn’t hold it, the Gallery does. So how does that relationship work?

JENNIFER: How does that work? It’s a good question, and it is one that is becoming increasingly relevant, I think, in terms of digital scholarship right now. And thankfully, I think the tide is moving toward more openness and more allowances with regard to what you do with it. Because, ultimately, the Gallery is perhaps the best example because it is the Nation’s collection. So we feel very much that this is the collection belonging to the people.

Just a few years ago, we were able to make all of our images Open Access, and earlier this year we migrated all of the images of the gallery to IIIF compatibility. So those images are done. The technical images that have been produced, which I believe has just happened, we have to see how we can make them integrate because we have not yet rolled that out, at least at the NGA. So we are kind of watching to see how IIIF is put out in other places because JHNA is not built on the same platform. So we have a different sort of hosting mechanism.

But as far as the image permissions, and deciding to work on it, it’s really at the discretion of the scholar. So in most places, when scholarship comes up, it’s because it’s either maybe prompted by an exhibition or just general interest, or perhaps even kind of that fun scholarly rabbit hole. Like, you’re looking at something else and you happen to stumble upon a little piece of information that leads you down another path.

With the impetus for what Melanie wanted to do, I’m actually not sure what totally led her to this, but she has done some really great scientific wok at the NGA. She did a large bit of scientific analysis for the most recent Vermeer exhibition that we had, as well as with the van Aelst exhibition in 2012. So she’s actively working on these kinds of questions around how works are painted, what pigments are used, what the composition is, etc. So form that perspective, it’s really scholar’s choice.

And for rights and reproductions, that sort of piece of it, at least at the NGA, this is all contributing to the dossier on this painting. So we want it to contribute to better understanding of the work, and I believe strongly that this will help do that. So the article is definitely a plus for the Gallery and to draw more attention to some of these paintings.

NICK: Wow, that’s great. And I was actually looking around the National Gallery website because I was trying to find van Eyck’s Annunciation, which I told you before we started recording, is one of my favorites. But one thing I forgot to look at, that I’m really curious about, is would that article then be linked to from the NGA website back to the Journal? When you say it becomes part of the dossier, is that what you mean?

JENNIFER: It is what I mean, in terms of — actually, I’m currently working on some projects withing Curatorial Records, so it would become the record on the object. From a practical perspective, ideally, that is what would happen is that we could link to this wonderful content.

The Gallery is undergoing quite a bit of change with regard to its digital strategy and establishing one, and we are by extension getting a new director soon, so I think there are a lot of changes coming down the pike. How that will ultimately materialize, I don’t really know yet. But I do think that’s the ultimate goal, is to have better connectivity with things that– with resources, especially that can relate to our content and make it richer for our user.

NICK: That actually leads me to a question I was going to ask a little further down, but before I get to that, when you were talking about the National Gallery of Art, you said “we” a couple of times, so for our listeners, could you explain your relationship to the National Gallery of Art and how you work now for the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art relates to that?

JENNIFER: Sure, so I worked formally at the Gallery in a number of roles over the course of about 15 years. And my formal time drew to a close earlier this year, but I am now working on contracts that relate to the NGA.

Earlier this week, I began a new project working on a digital project for the Kress Foundation, an ongoing effort that will continue, I believe until 2020. My piece of it is set up at least through next year, but I have worked on a number of projects at the NGA and I am actually sitting at the NGA right now.

I most recently was the curatorial coordinator for digital content, and I was responsible for helping our curators bring their ideas to digital format, making them accessible. The bigger projects that we did, we had Molly Donovan’s essay on Rachel Whiteread. That exhibition is up right now but we preempted it with a scholarly essay that has a lot in the apparatus that allows a user to read, and cite, etc.

I also worked on the online scholarly catalog initiative effort here to produce Dutch paintings of the 17th Century. And that was roughly a five-year endeavor that was 30 people plus. And was in the curatorial office for many years, in Northern Baroque paintings, so I know the content pretty well and I was able to serve as the project coordinator, so I was responsible for working with the curatorial staff and the technical staff and kind of liaising with everybody to ensure that we have a catalog up, which is now happily online and accessible to all and free.

So that’s a little bit about my background, and I hope to continue getting to work on NGA projects as we move forward.

NICK: Yeah, that’s great. It’s neat that you have found this overlap between the two and that your work with the Journal can benefit from your work at the NGA. I’ll jump ahead — the question that I was kind of saving for last, but I think relates to what you were talking about, about working with curators to make the digitization of their work accessible.

When we work with museums in a content strategy consultancy role, we help simplify the process by breaking down their websites into these four different categories, and I won’t get into each of them — well, maybe it would help if I did. So the four categories would be Foundational Content, which is just the stuff that you need to have a website. Blogs and social media, we know what that is. Digital projects and productions, and then Essential Work. And Essential Work is the label that we’ve given to the types of things that happen at a museum, whether or not there was a website. So, particularly scholarly work particularly.

And so there’s often a challenge for making web content out of that Essential Work, and so it sounds like what you had been doing at NGA, but also what you are doing at JHNA is all about this Essential Work, putting it online, making it accessible to audiences who care about it. So what sort of things have you learned over the years, and what sort of advice would you have for the museum who says, “Gosh, our curators do so much work, but it doesn’t all see the light of day, particularly on the website.” What sort of parameters, or advice, or words of wisdom would you give to somebody hoping more of that accessible?

JENNIFER: To bridge that? It’s a really great question, and somewhat complicated. I think that it is entirely essential that we think of that kind of essential work that you do as married with a digital platform to do that. Because that is really making that bridge between what is accessible and what is not.

The great example that I can give from the NGA’s perspective is that we produced and worked upon the Systematic Catalog Initiative in 1986 to produce scholarly research on our permanent collection of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts. The reason that prompted the Dutch Catalog to get worked on — it was published in 1995 originally — and then in 2004, it went out of print. So at that point, our curator and then-publisher, editor-in-chief, rather, said, “You know, we have to figure out a way of going forward with this.”

And that’s what prompted us to say, “Well, how can we leverage what is being developed online to try to get some of this content out?” Because the reality is when these things are produced, they are beautiful, they are low-production in terms of quantity, they’re expensive, both to produce and to buy. So an average consumer may not acquire a collection of information. And they’re hard to get to. So if you live in the middle of nowhere and you cannot get access to this book, we’re effectively blocking you from getting this information.

We are trying, at least at the Gallery, to make inroads to get the content out and making it accessible. So, I think that a lot of times, there a bar of, “We have to have everything figured out in advance,” because we, at least in the curatorial sense, and in the scholarly sense, often like to like to think like a book model. Like, we have to know everything about this there is to know. Period. Full stop. In order to push it out there. But that’s not really the case.

I think that the way that digital and museums can change the direction of how we approach scholarship, is that we need to be somewhat compartmentalized and take granular steps toward a better and deeper understanding. This is not an endpoint. The publication is no longer the endpoint, the publication is a progress.

So I look at it more as what we’re trying to do is, with journal articles, like this one at JHNA, with the scholarly catalog initiative, that many museums are now getting on board. It’s just, put your information on it out there. Work on having it fine-tuned and letting peers review it after the fact, after it goes up there, because you can get feedback and you can change things on the fly, and you can version something, and you can archive that version, and we can basically create a really great space to get a dialog going.

And further, I think this is some of what you were asking, too, is that I think it will also help expand the audience. There are some people that I’m sure would love to know about Rembrandt’s self-portrait and they maybe only know it because they’ve seen a postcard of it. And the way of approaching it is getting a little piece of content, like an overview to let a user get into the content gradually, and then if you want to go deep, there’s a full entry there for you.

So I think it’s a matter of saying, “How can we best do this?” I think it’s really pushing the importance of the permanent collection, is the key for museums. And then, focusing efforts on expansion of ideas in the permanent collection is critical. We don’t necessarily — I mean, exhibitions are great, but the permanent collection is what your external people come to see, and it’s where I think the heart of any museum lies, and that is the Essential Work.

NICK: Excellent. So on a more technical level, are there any tools that you have used or that you have come across that you think museums would be interested in learning more about.

JENNIFER: Yeah, absolutely. With my work on the online scholarly catalog initiative, that was generously funded by the Getty Foundation, the National Gallery was one of nine institutions embarking on kind of putting forth these efforts in online scholarly publications, and we had the effort of taking an existing publication, migrating it online. Others were starting from scratch, and they’ve all taken various approaches.

But one thing that was so great is that the Getty also funded IMA Labs to create an OSCI toolkit and that’s still available via the Getty’s webpage that will give you a description on the initiative and the OSCI toolkit is built in Drupal, and it’s got a ton of tools in there to allow museums or anyone to produce scholarly content on a collection basis. I personally have not used it, but I know it was modeled largely after the work that IMA Labs had done for the Art Institute in Chicago. That is Drupal-based.

So that’s a great tool to be able to get some of this content up. I would also say I worked on the Leiden Collection scholarly catalog last year. We built that in WordPress, and it was– with a lot of heavy customization, I don’t want to minimize that– but I think that WordPress is a great platform for tailoring that and there are a lot of resources. But the OSCI toolkit is a great one to look at if you want to dip your toe in.

NICK: Yeah, great, thank you, and speaking of WordPress, I noticed that the Journal’s website is built in WordPress as well, so you can do a lot there.

JENNIFER: I think it’s really– there’s a lot more flexibility than what meets the eye. And that’s been really great.

NICK: So you mentioned the peer review happening afterward….

JENNIFER: That’s just my idea.


JENNIFER: That’s my preference.

NICK: What sort of challenges are there then with getting articles peer reviewed when they are sort of evolving? Because, like you said, the publication is not the end, it’s progress. So I originally had two different questions, but I think they relate to each other. Is there a possible credibility issue with certain older generations of researchers, and then on a practical level, how do you update a peer review?

JENNIFER: Sure. That’s a great question, and what that I don’t know that there’s really an answer because there are definitely camps of both parties. I would say, in terms of your question about– I think there’s definitely the older guard of how scholarship is done, is that the way we have always done it is, we write something, we send it out for blind peer review or open peer review, it depends on what is selected. So they review it, we get the information back, we adjust the writing, the scholarship, and then that’s what gets produced.

With digital, the way that I would like to see it, and the way that I think some people do see it, is that I’m going to go ahead and put this up there, and when I get an email from a colleague who I know, and whose opinion I want to measure and integrate that opinion, then it’s a matter of saying, “I’m adding this to a footnote.” It is still peer-reviewed.

In essence, it’s an ongoing peer review because people are writing into you and saying, “You know, I found this piece of information and we found this out,” or you know, a colleague from another department within the same institution can say, “this is what I’ve observed.” And that changed our understanding.

So I think the definition of what “peer review” is, it’s supposed to be a gut check. Right? It’s supposed to make sure your ideas are not too far off base and that they tie back to things we know in the field. But they still pave the way. So what I’m hoping to see, and what you see now more with journals like JHNA, is that they will post if it’s a double-blind peer review, what kind of peer review is given. And if it is something to which it will constantly be added. So separate from the Journal — the Journal is not going to be updated, per se. But whereas a permanent collection in a museum and they have an entry, they can update it at whatever speed they want.

So I think basically noting, this is the version we published on this date, so you can go back. If you’re studying it, you can go back and say, OK, it was peer reviewed on this date, but new information came in and there was a new version put out. So I can then discern what does that mean. Or what does it mean that this person gave an opinion? Does that augment my understanding of what this scholar is saying?

So I think can cut in a really positive way, it’s just the sea change of trying to get people to get comfortable with that. It’s a long arc. We’ll see how it goes.

NICK: That makes sense to me. It’s almost like a book may publish a new edition or something like that, so it’s constantly building on what had come before with the addition of new knowledge.

So in the more traditional model, and I might be showing how little I really know about scholarly research. Rather than this versioning model that you’re talking about, which seems to make total sense, especially given the technology we have these days. Traditionally, would it be that another paper would sort of refute a previous paper, and the new one sort of becomes the truth, or the…?

JENNIFER: That’s exactly right. So the way that it would happen, a book is produced a review of that book is put out and the either agree or disagree, or they agree with some parts but not others, and that is all again part of this canon, this dossier, on the art object, our understanding, or the subject matter.

So I think that’s a lot — in terms of that whole versioning concept, that’s why for scholars, I feel that it is so important to have those versions available. So using permalinks, using perl.org to archive your versions so that you can go back to them, is critical. Because in trying to construct the narrative of what happened when and who said what when, to get you to, OK, so where are we now? Like where is the final word? That’s really helpful to know, and being able to trust that you can go back to it is key. Because that’s the other thing, too. If so-and-so disagreed with the person who wrote the article, and that information is captured in the footnote because so-and-so wrote to me and they disagree, but I happen to think this.

You can actually put that in the text of a footnote. You can make a new version, put that in the text of the footnote, and you’ve done away with the academic arguments that happened on paper in publications. So, I think that’s a real plus.

NICK: I just wanted to ask you about other pluses of digitization on a more sort of practical or formatting basis. So to the reader, what sort of advantages are there consuming this kind of content digitally compared to in print?

JENNIFER: I think that it allows for — at least, for art historians — so I will give you, anecdotally when I was working on the scholarly catalog initiative here at the Gallery, I was working on trying to work through what our technical requirements would be with a number of people. And one of the most annoying things about reading art historical literature in print is that, if there are images to compare, you have to fold the pages. Or if you’re using a computer, you have to bring up multiple browsers to compare the images and it is utterly annoying. But in print, I find it especially super-cumbersome.

Another thing is footnotes. You see a reference that says, “see Wheelock, 1995.” You have to go flip to the back of the book, find whatever they’re talking about. These things, just in terms of reading and not losing the thread of what you’re reading, are ultimately annoying.

But I think that the image comparison is perhaps the most salient. So allowing for scholarly text to be read online where you can do a side by side image comparison right there on the page while you’re reading it is crucial to being able to understand what you’re talking about, what you’re reading, making opinions, etc. So it is the total benefit. I think one of the greatest benefits of putting scholarship online.

Better tools for scholars. And not just for historians, obviously. Having footnotes that expand inline is a thing of beauty. Having links to other rabbit holes that I might want to follow as a scholar. Fantastic, which you can do from the footnotes, obviously.

And I will say this, too. Some people — and I may even be in this camp to some extent — I still like to take my thing away and read it later, per se. Like I might want to read the text on the train, on the plane, without Internet capability. Having something where I can download a PDF and highlight it, and make my own annotations, and work how I want, I think that’s also the great flexibility. You can read it right there on the screen. And there are tools — you can have hypothesis down there, you can start to make annotations, you can add it to your Zotero library. And those area great functions, but you have the flexibility if you want to download it and take it for later and be old school, you can do that, too. So I think it’s a plus.

NICK: Awesome. Was there anything that you had in mind before we started our call that you were hoping would come up, or that you wanted to add to the conversation?

JENNIFER: I think I would only add — I keep coming back to that idea that you had thrown out there. Like museums trying to get their brains around, “how can we move this content out?” And I think the one thing I will say is being able to be flexible about trying new things is one of the hardest things for institutions to take on because it’s a risk. 100% it’s a risk.

But I think that leveraging things that are happening in the field, looking to other disciplines and positioning yourself. Like if you’re thinking, oh maybe we’ll apply some content tags, well maybe you go a step beyond and you say, I’m going to apply controlled vocabulary because that will eventually allow for better connectivity. Not only with my objects but with other institutions’ objects. And not only that but with other disciplines. Because that’s really where the promise lies, and with what new scholarship we can do.

So I’d just say, don’t be fearful museums, just go for it. Just try it out, or find some willing participants to just give it a test run. It could fail, it could also be really awesome.

NICK: That was Jennifer Henel of the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art and the National Gallery of Art. I want to thank Jennifer for sharing so much great knowledge and experience about producing Essential Work online.

And I want to thank you for listening. If you’d like to hear more episodes of What’s On, head over to cuberis.com/podcast, and you’ll find all of our back episodes.

If you’d like to join me as a guest on a future episode or know someone our listeners would love to hear from, send me an email. It’s nick@cuberis.com .

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?